Journalists and media companies in Malawi are mobilizing to decide how best to deal with the government’s potential threat to their industry with the signing of a bill last week that gives the government the power to close print media outlets publishing material it deems “contrary to the public interest.”
The government of President Bingu wa Mutharika has taken the controversial step despite lobbying from the media industry. The law is an amendment to Section 46 of the Penal Code that previously granted the government the power to prohibit the importation of material it deemed offensive. The new law grants the Minister of Information the additional power to deny the publication of such material within the country, causing Malawian media to cry foul.
What is deemed to be “contrary to the public interest” is not defined in the law and can be determined by the Minister of Information. The Solicitor General and Secretary for Justice, Anthony Kamanga, says the Minister of Information must have “reasonable grounds” and decisions can be challenged in court.
“Government is doing all it can to make sure the media is not free,” says the acting Chairperson of the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Anthony Kasunda. MISA is a non-governmental organization that lobbies to promote free and diverse media in the country. Kasunda says the government “is not comfortable with constructive criticism from the media.”
Secretary Kamanga claims that the freedom of the press “is not one of those rights you cannot place restrictions on.” He claims the new law is not about shutting down the free press, but rather about protecting public interest, public order and the reputation of individuals, adding “I know of no country in the world where there is absolute freedom of the press.”
But Kasunda insists the bill’s approval indicates that Malawi is “sliding back in terms of democracy.”
Manager of Blantyre Newspapers Limited, Tikhala Chibwana, says the new law, which he calls grossly unfair, “is a profound departure from the spirit of the Republican Constitution of Malawi which grants freedom of expression, but also free flow of information.
The General Secretary Kamanga insists the new law is in accordance with the Constitution of Malawi and claims “the press have missed the point.” He points out Section 44 of the constitution that says: “No restrictions or limitations may be placed on the exercise of any rights and freedoms … other than those prescribed by law, which are reasonable, recognized by international human rights standards and necessary in an open and democratic society.”
This is not the first time the Malawian government and media are facing off. Last year, the government threatened to shut down publications that reported on a study about people going hungry in the country, claiming they were spreading “false information.”
MISA Malawi will be holding meetings with media stakeholders over the next several days and suggests it might take legal action against the government.